Book Review: Words on Music

Article excerpt

Book Review: Words on Music Words on Music: From Addison to Barzun, edited by Jack Sullivan. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. xxvii, IVlUSlL XVJj1 438 pp $19 95 pbk

JACK SULLIVAN, EDITOR OF THE PRESENT COLLECTION OF ESSAYS on music, is an Associate Professor of English at Rider College in New Jersey, and is the author of works on English ghost stories. With the present volume, Sullivan moves onto what obviously is for him less familiar ground. (Nowhere - just in case the thought crossed your mind - does the book mention the "Ghost" Trio.) Although his preface manfully attempts a raison d'être for it, Words on Music turns out to be just another not very distinguished anthology of writings and musings on the progeny of St. Caecilia.

"The purpose of the book," writes Sullivan, "is to introduce a representative sample of... often neglected writers" (p. xi). Like Charles Burney? Albert Schweitzer? Romain Rolland? George Bernard Shaw? Charles Rosen? Virgil Thomson? Donald Francis Tovey? Richard Wagner? These are "neglected writers"? Perhaps Sullivan means writers whose writings on music are often neglected, but this won't fly. Yes, H.L. Mencken, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, G.K. Chesterton, and other such souls are here, but most of the essayists are musicians, musician-critics, or critics period. Probably the real rationale behind the collection is that these essays appeal to Sullivan. If this is the case, he should have said so; he might then have been praised at least for his literary - if not musical - taste.

Yes, there are many nicely-written pieces here, not a few of which will already be familiar to musically inclined readers. The writings are neither rigorously nor convincingly grouped into four categories, moving from "an overview to an insider's perspective," namely: "Writing about music" (five essays, including a light-hearted piece by the editor); "Composers and masterworks (sixty-four essays - the heart of the book); "The art of music" (seven essays); and "Memoirs and portraits" (ten essays). The book is not to be read cover to cover, hut rather offers rich fare for browsing. It makes for pleasant bedtime reading.

As for this journal's eponym, he pops up in probably a majority of the anthology's eighty-odd essays. Seven are in large part devoted to him; they are (most of the titles being the editor's): Peacock, "Beethoven's Fidelio " (it being "the absolute perfection of dramatic music"); Thomson, "Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart"; three essays by Berlioz, "Weber and the fantastic," "Beethoven's despair," and "On hearing Beethoven's C-sharp Minor quartet"; E.T.A. Hoffmann, "Beethoven and the sublime"; Wagner, "Beethoven: A revelation from another world"; and Tovey and Shaw, with essays on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

To each essay, Sullivan adds a short introduction. These range from the naive to the ingenuous. Prefacing Charles Rosen on "The erotic Mozart," Sullivan writes that Rosen's book The Classical Style "is one of the most intelligent books of its kind ever written. The section on Mozart's eroticism, here excerpted, is especially provocative a sharp challenge to those who think of Mozart as only a safe, pleasant tunesmith. "(Reviewer's note: who, pray tell, might they be?) And Sullivan's musical acumen may be gauged by his astounding claim that, in the case of Virgil Thomson, "No one has summarized Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart with more precision and wit, or tied their humanity more touchingly to their music." Well, here's Thomson on Haydn:

"The rondo, Haydn's most frequently observed last-movement scheme, gives too much play to his musical imagination, obliges him too little to expression. The same is true of his slow movements, which are melodious and full of incidental invention, but which do not say much."

Oh, dear. Wait till you hear what the precise and witty Thomson has to say about Beethoven:

"Beethoven really was an old bachelor. But he never liked it. …